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date: 31 March 2023

homosexuality, femalefree

homosexuality, femalefree

  • Sandra Boehringer


Sexual and amorous relationships between females constitute, as a heuristic category, an illuminating field of research for the construction of sexual categories in antiquity, as well as for the prevailing gender system of the time. In Greece and Rome, sexuality did not have the identity function that we attribute to it today: in these societies “before sexuality,” the category of female homosexuality, like those of heterosexuality or homosexuality in general, did not exist per se. Yet we have access to over forty documents (containing both substantial treatments and brief mentions), along with the terms hetairistria and tribas, associated with this semantic field.

In Archaic Greece, the privileged expression of erotic desire between women can be found without ambiguity in the verses of Alcman and Sappho. In this community context, the force of eros is celebrated, and the joys and pains generated by its power are sung without differentiation based on gender categories. In Classical and Hellenistic Greece, the sources become rarer: female homosexuality disappears from our evidence for the possible configurations of eros, with the notable exception of Plato’s account (Symposium, Laws). Throughout the 3rd and 2nd centuries bce, it is in the context of playful and humourous discourses that authors (Amphis, Asclepiades) allude to relationships between women. The tone changes in the Roman world, where three types of discourse develop: that of elegiac poetry (particularly Ovid) which re-employs positive Greek motifs but shows the impossibility of such relationships; that of satire (e.g. Martial, Juvenal), particularly derogatory, where the complex figure of the tribas appears alongside ridiculous and repugnant characters; and, later, that of the classifying discourses of physiognomic or astrological texts. In Greece as in Rome, the rarity of these erotic representations in images and paintings indicates that sex between women barely entered, if at all, into the erotic imaginary of the masculine elite.

In antiquity, there is no perceived equivalence between male homoerotic love and female homoerotic love, just as the image of the tribas is not identical or strictly parallel to the figure of the Greek kinaidos or the Roman mollis. While the latter two may in certain circumstances embody a deviant masculinity that defines, through opposition, the masculine ideal, the tribas does not occupy any similar position in contrast to a figure embodying positive and privileged femininity: in this respect, the ancient gender system is not symmetrical.


  • Gender Studies

Societies before Sexuality

Cultural historians and philosophers have established that the modern notion of sexuality began in the later years of the Enlightenment, and that specific categories of sexual beings were established over the course of the 19th century1. In light of this work, it is no longer possible to consider sexuality or homosexuality as transhistorical or transcultural realities. Moreover, the definition of “sexual practices” or “sexual acts” varies considerably across time, and these acts are connected to various domains of human activity (education, social power, marriage in its political and economic dimensions, sexual commerce, violence, pleasure, love) according to very different modalities that are specific to each society. Sexuality, “this bond that people are forced to tie to their identity in the form of subjectivity,”2 can be defined as the experience of a contemporary Western subject caught up in the scientific discourses and norms of an era, an experience gradually built as a “place of truth” (lieu de vérité): the individual is called to self-recognition, to self-definition, indeed to self-discovery, in what is not a simple bodily practice nor even an interpersonal relationship, but rather a subjective experience. The experience of sexuality thus defined is a recent historical development: the ancient world did not know it, and in this sense Greece and Rome are worlds before sexuality.3

The categories of “homosexuality” and “heterosexuality” appeared in the West at the end of the 19th century. They classify persons according to the sex of the person with whom they have sexual and/or amorous relationships, and they create oppositional hierarchies (healthy, unhealthy; normal, abnormal). This means of differentiating individuals, caught in this normative mesh of behaviours, is foreign to classical societies, in which no single Greek or Latin term encompasses the categories that “homosexuality” and “heterosexuality” currently designate. The ancients did not imagine that individuals of the two sexes, of all social backgrounds, statuses, and origins shared a common life experience in that they were attracted to persons of the same sex, nor did they imagine that they could claim a common “identity.”4 In consequence, a historical investigation predicated on the question of sexual and amorous relationships between women cannot proffer a linear history of a fixed and stable object. On the other hand, if one considers female homosexuality as a heuristic category, we have access to fewer than fifty documents in connection with this topic. Even if this information is less copious than that concerning homoerotic male relationships, it is possible, while resisting the temptation to fill the silences, to bring to light characteristics of ancient eroticism and aspects of the gender system in Greece and Rome that have received little consideration until now.

Main Sources and Periodization

The periodization that it is possible to outline is based upon discursive practices. These writings are not direct reflections of a reality, but are rather the imprints of particular forms of expression (sung poems, satires, philosophical elaborations, etc.) with their own concerns and logic, that it is useful to lay bare. This overview, while not exhaustive, outlines the major stages.

Archaic Greece: The Power of Eros

Alcman: Song and Love in Service to the City

In Sparta at the end of the 7th century bce, Alcman’s Partheneia show that female homoerotic desires and sentiments were worthy of being sung in public, and that they could participate in the construction of a common identity. The Partheneia are poems intended to be performed by young girls in the political and educational context of choral training.5 Alcman is likely to have been officially commissioned by the city of Sparta to compose these songs, which a female choir then publicly performed. The author creates verses for these young girls in which they celebrate the grace (charis) of those who direct their choral training, young women who arouse in them at once modesty, admiration, and erotic emotion.6 These songs, which we know by way of several long fragments (P. Louvre E 3320), characterize this emotion by describing the effects that erotic sentiment produces in the bodies of the young choristers. The force of eros strikes them, leaving them unsteady. Comparison with death, found in the works of other Archaic poets, confirms the erotic dimension of these evocations. This does not mean that the performers of the song truly or personally felt this love (it is rare, in any case, for the songs to express intimate emotions directly—Greek melic poetry is not lyric in the 19th-century sense). However, this does not detract from the importance of the documents. Quite the opposite: the evocation of heroic figures and great battles connected with Sparta’s mythical past (fr. 3, 1–39 ed. Calame) highlights the collective dimension of such choral practices and the civic values for which they serve as a vehicle. Far from being perceived as a private sentiment, silenced and kept secret in the deepest intimacy, erotic desire between female characters is considered capable of forging a bond and playing a role in the formation (paideia) of female members of the political community.

Sappho and Anacreon: Painful and Wonderful Eros

It is likewise through song—a social and political practice of extreme importance—that love between women is evoked in Lesbos. While Sappho’s poems (late 7th–early 6th centuries bce) sing the agonies of love in general, the majority of them celebrate the eros felt by one woman for another.7 In most of Sappho’s poems, the I is feminine, and it expresses love, already past or yet to come, for another woman, who is sometimes named (Atthis, Anactoria, Gongyla, Mnasidika, or Mika). The physical and psychological symptoms of love are evoked: trembling, murmuring, loss of voice (fr. 31), vertigo (P. Sapph. Obbink) and nausea (fr. 1), weak knees (fr. 58).8 The virtues of the young women are also described, along with departures, separations, radiant memories, and luminous hopes. The pragmatic approach to these poems, which takes into account the concrete performance of the songs through the study of enunciative indicators,9 underscores their collective, and not private, dimension.

A poem by Anacreon (fr. 358), whose ludic ambiguity has generated numerous commentaries, may also be linked with this erotic tradition: one possible reading of the poem is that a woman of Lesbos turns away from the amorous poet, preferring another woman instead. Whatever the case may be, nothing within the ensemble of melic poetry from the Archaic period expresses a difference in the nature of the desire that arises between two women, between a woman and a man, or between two men, and even less so the idea of a hierarchy of love based on normality or conformity to traditions, according to arguments made on moral grounds. In these songs, eros is the force whose very evocation can unite a community (within either the public context or that of symposia); it is also, paradoxically, the force that causes those whom it strikes to lose their bearings. Eros is neither limited to, nor experienced towards, only one gender, and female homoeroticism is one of its possible manifestations.

Erotic Image and Mythical Love

This perception of eroticism during the Archaic period, which neither distinguishes nor condemns amorous relationships between females, is corroborated by a representation on a polychrome plate from Thera, dating from the end of the 7th century bce.10 Two women, facing each other, exchange garlands: one touches the other’s chin in accordance with an erotic motif that is clearly identifiable and present in courtship scenes between women and men, or between men. It is difficult to generalize on the basis of a single image, but we can take note of the integration of this relationship into the positive context of a courtship scene depicted on an object intended for a banquet.

Figure 1. Polychrome plate, c. 620 bce. Thera, Archaeological Museum.

In regard to myth, although there does not exist a female equivalent of the well-known loves between a god and a young mortal (e.g., Apollo and Hyacinthus), a motif of interest appears in the story of Callisto: according to one variation, attested by scholia on Hesiod and Aratos (see section “Asclepiades and Amphis: laughter without a hidden agenda”), Zeus adopts the guise of Artemis in order to engage in a sexual relationship with the goddess’s preferred companion. This variation also appears in sources from the Roman era (see section “Greek motifs for an erotic Latin poetry”).

In contemporary studies, the god–mortal relationship has been linked to the asymmetrical dimension of the educational or initiatory relationship.11 Sappho’s poetry has sometimes been read this way, but without the emergence of any consensus. Sappho’s poems do not in fact reveal any noticeable age differences, nor any explicitly authority-based relationships, between fictional characters. The educational dimension of female relationships is articulated much later, in Plutarch at the beginning of the 2nd century ce: in his depiction of archaic Sparta, he underscores the importance of the educational model that the lover represents for the beloved, and draws a parallel between it and the relationship established between women (kalai kai agathai) and young girls (Life of Lycurgus, 17.8–9). This passage primarily bears witness to Plutarch’s interest in erotic relationships as capable of producing effects in the social and political domain, notably in Sparta. In reality, nothing permits us to deduce that an asymmetry similar to the one that some see in masculine “paederasty” is a valid social model of love between women (see in particular Parker, 1993).

Historical and Lexical Clarification: Sappho, Lesbos, and Female Homosexuality

The etymology of the current terms “lesbianism” (1870) and “Sapphism” (1890) has sometimes created confusion in the understanding of ancient narratives.12 In antiquity, the name “Sappho” never actually implied this kind of love. For more than five centuries, Sappho was never made the object of any kind of moral reprobation as a result of the homoeroticism in her verses. The use of these verses in the masculine symposia of the Classical and Hellenistic periods confirms that this repertoire was integrated into the common culture. While Attic drama of the 5th and 6th centuries bce made her the lover, comically, of multiple men, the feminine loves sung in her poems are neither mentioned nor even mocked. During this same time period, the term lesbiazein appeared, meaning “to do as the people of Lesbos.” This term designated either, in a general way, denigrated sexual practices performed by a woman on a man, or, more specifically, fellatio; it can equally refer to a musical mode characterized as lascivious, but without any particular connection with the poet.13 It is only at the end of the 1st century bce, in Rome, that Sappho’s female loves (through assimilation of the poet and the persona cantans) are evoked, but without the figure of the poet becoming either an antonomasia or a marker of female homosexuality. As for the link between Lesbos as a geographic location and female homoeroticism, aside from Anacreon’s ambivalent poem this link does not appear until the 2nd century ce, in a text by Lucian, where it is used to characterize the place of origin of women who have relationships with other women. In this Dialogue of Courtesans, the connotation probably results from an implicit association not with the figure of Sappho but with a place known for its inhabitants being particularly skilled in sexual commerce. We find neither “lesbians” nor followers of “Sapphism” in antiquity.14

Classical and Hellenistic Greece: Indifference or Humour

Love between women appears only in very rare instances during the Classical and Hellenistic periods. It is difficult to explain this absence, and the lack of such examples does not prove that the Greeks thought of love between women as belonging to a separate category; but it can simply be noted that this type of relationship is not made an object of condemnation in itself.

Love and Philosophy: The Extent of the Possible

It is in the context of a philosophical reflection on eros that there appears one of the rare—but no less important—mentions of love between women in the Classical period. In his Symposium, from the beginning of the 4th century bce, Plato sets the scene with guests who are praising eros. The character Aristophanes chooses to tell a bizarre story in which the cleaving of the three primitive beings—originally female, male, and androgynous spheres, each a single whole comprised of two complete people as they are today—is at the origin of the erotic forms of his time, each half being engaged in a search for its other half. He mentions the case of the female sphere, from which are descended women who are attracted to other women, and from which the hetairistriai originate (Symposium, 191d–e). This term, which appears here for the first time, cannot have the meaning of “homosexuals” because it does not designate all of the halves descended from the female being, but only the segment that is intensely attracted to women (the rest being merely attracted to women, without excess). Constructed from the verb hetairizein, which has the double meaning of “to be the companion of” and “to prostitute oneself,” the word was probably invented by Plato, in the style of the comic author Aristophanes. The definition of erotic desire offered by the fictional Aristophanes is intended, within the structure of Symposium, to culminate in Socrates’s discourse, which, through the female figure of Diotima, makes it clear that eros is a desire directed toward pure ideas and philosophy. The philosopher’s desire to stage an eros detached from sensory experience leads him to construct, through the character of Aristophanes, a preliminary overview of the erotic relationships that currently exist within human nature: in this panorama, erotic relationships between women are a possibility.

A few years later, in the context of a political reflection on eros, Plato once again places love between women on the same level as other desires. In the Laws, the Athenian proposes prohibiting amorous relationships between the youth (with no specification as to one’s sex) and “boys and girls” in order to regulate behaviour during competition, festivities, and sacrifices, and to promote harmony and the regulated planning of births (836a–b; see also 636b–d). Here there is no condemnation of homosexuality as such, and there is even less evidence of “homophobia”: sexual relationships between unmarried men and women are all equally forbidden. Within the framework of legislation for an ideal city, it is a question of regulating relationships to allow for order and to ensure the best transmission of heritage. Paradoxically, this interdiction provides a recognition of eroticism between women; in this context, such eroticism constitutes a desire liable to engender the same discords as other forms of love.15

Asclepiades and Amphis: Laughter without a Hidden Agenda

At the very end of the Classical period and during the Hellenistic period, there appear some mentions of erotic relationships between women. First and foremost among these is a play by Amphis (second half of the 4th century bce) which stages, in a comedy we know only through an outline (fr. 46 K.-A.), an Artemis who is vexed to learn that her favorite nymph, Callisto, is pregnant: the plot relies on a variant of the myth of Callisto, whom Zeus, disguised as Artemis, allegedly raped (see section “Erotic image and mythical love”). According to what can be gleaned from the outline, the comic aspect of the play rests upon the fact that the young girl declares that she has made love with the goddess and that, as a result, the latter is responsible for her pregnancy. Another occurrence, likewise humorous in tone, can be found in Asclepiades. The poet, in an epigram preserved in the Greek Anthology (5.207), presents a poet-character who is quite annoyed to see two women scorn his advances, only to leave together. An analysis of the construction of the character, who is identified with the poet’s own persona,16 allows us to distinguish a playful distance between the poet Asclepiades and his eponymous character (thus suggesting a poetic-ludic game, and not an anachronistic condemnation of homosexual relationships). In the context of epigrammatic love poetry, amorous relationships between women thus appear as an erotic possibility: indeed, in the 1st century bce, Meleager of Gadara chose to feature Asclepiades’s poem in his Garland.

These occurrences affirm what Plato’s texts allow us to think: during this time period, the ancients neither displayed disgust toward these types of relationships, nor considered them taboo. Aristotle, for example, has no qualms about describing the erotic behaviour that female doves engage in together (History of Animals, 560b–561a). What we witness is rather a lack of interest in such behaviour when it is judged outside a political context.

Images and Representations: Absence of Pornographic Motifs

A contemporary audience may be surprised to learn that in the Classical and Hellenistic periods, there is a near-total absence of images of sexual relationships between women, in particular the erotic and “pornographic” images that circulated on diverse objects during banquets. Vases depicting women in an intimate setting do exist,17 but this intimacy is principally suggested rather than depicted outright. For the Classical period, interpretations diverge concerning a small number of vases that, according to some, are explicitly erotic: these vases often show nude women brandishing a dildo (olisbos18). However, a simple study comparing these depictions with other similar images reveals that the olisbos and the phallic object are not markers of female homosexual activity19: they appear either in the context of group sex between men, or in the hands of, or near, women who are not making love to one another. An Attic kylix20 showing a crouching woman extending her hand toward the genitals of another woman has sometimes been interpreted as a scene of lesbian sex, but comparisons of this image with scenes of depilation disproves this interpretation.

In light of the extreme rarity of images depicting erotic relationships between women, in comparison with the many vases representing couples of men or of men and women, it appears that female homosexuality was not a pornographic subject (in the current sense of the word). Gazing at two women making love to one another was not an erotic activity for those who used this pottery. Of course, these images do not allow us access to actual practices or knowledge of representations of free women (and even less of women of lower status); above all, they inform us about the tastes of the (male) citizens who frequented symposia.

The Roman World and Greco-Roman Culture: From Distancing to Satire

Greek Motifs for an Erotic Latin Poetry

It is through the figure of the Greek poet Sappho that the first mentions of love between women appear in Roman poetry. While several passages of Horace or Ovid had established a link between Sappho and the love she expresses (Horace, Odes 2.13.24–25; Ov., Tr. 2.363–364), the Heroides explicitly formulate the type of relationship that, according to the Romans, Sappho had with the young girls of her country. In this collection of fictional letters exchanged between heroines and their lovers, Ovid gives voice to a Sappho in love with a young man, Phaon, who abandons her. The poet’s fictional character evokes her previous relationships with women in Lesbos (15.15–20). While even her character alludes to her bad reputation, the discourse is not condemning: Ovid makes Sappho into his poetic double, a model for the writing of desire and love.

This attention to love between women occurs twice more in the poet’s work, always as an echo of the Greek legends that the poet is reinventing. In his Metamorphoses, after describing a world in transformation and in which the genders of bodies remain fluid, Ovid takes up a mythic subject already used by Amphis in Attic comedy (see section “Asclepiades and Amphis: Laughter without a hidden agenda”), that of the nymph Callisto and Jupiter’s transformation into Diana in order to embrace her. Here, the poet depicts an embrace between a young woman and a goddess (Met. 2.409–440). This image is reutilized four centuries later in the verses of the Greek poet Nonnus of Panopolis (2.120–124; 33.289–293; 36.66–74), and on a Roman simpulum found at Cullera, dating from the 4th century CE.21

Ovid likewise recounts the Cretan legend of Iphis (Met. 9.666–797), whose structural elements appear in the story of Leucippus, at Phaistos (Antoninus Liberalis, Metamorphoses, 17, after Nicander), to which he adds an erotic element. It is the longest passage in Latin literature dedicated to female homoeroticism.22 When little Iphis is born, the mother leads everyone to believe that the child is a boy so that the father will not abandon the baby. This deception succeeds until the day Iphis encounters the beautiful Ianthe; the two women fall in love, but Ianthe does not know that Iphis is a woman. At the end of the story, Iphis is transformed into a man thanks to the intervention of the goddess Isis. However, while the initial plot mechanism is that of a simple misunderstanding resulting from cross-dressing, Ovid continually inflects the story’s logic. Highlighting the degree to which Iphis resembles a girl despite the circumstances and her upbringing, he explicitly portrays a situation of love between women. Iphis’s long monologue, tinged with desperation, is filled with rhetorical clichés that obstruct any lyrical or psychological interpretation. With this presentation, Ovid sets up the true metamorphosis that will transform this socially irresolvable situation: that of the relation—in the mathematical sense of the word—between the two women. The sex change is not an end but a means, the transformation of a cura prodigiosa into a Venus de more. Far from being a demeaning discourse, for the poet it is rather a question of giving an account, within the context of an etiological carmen describing the successive metamorphoses leading from chaos to the present day, of the social nonexistence of these relationships in the Augustan society to which he belonged.

A graffito found on the wall of a house in Pompeii (CIL IV, 5296) and dating from the end of the 1st century bce to the beginning of the 1st century ce reprises the Greek paraclausithyron (the lover’s desperate love song before the closed door of his/her beloved), in a poem featuring the voice of a woman addressing a beloved woman, referred to as pupula, “my darling.” 23 Female homoeroticism is thus not totally excluded from the practice of Roman erotic poetry.

These references to Greece can certainly function to make such relations appear distant from normal practice in Rome24 (as in satire, for example). To the extent that Greece is a motif that traverses the whole of Roman culture, however, particularly in the erotic domain where such references have a positive value,25 they do not distinguish sexual relationships between women from other kinds of relationships. Nor do they make of them, in the poetic discourse of the Augustan age, a specific category.

Moral Norms and Juridical Preoccupations Concerning Adultery

One of the principal preoccupations to appear during the reign of Augustus was adultery, understood as a sexual relationship between a woman of free status and a man other than her husband. It is in the context of a fictional controversy intended as part of the training of future lawyers that Seneca the Rhetorician evokes this question, and appeals to the term tribades: he cites two Greek orators who apparently had the bad taste to mention the case of a husband who discovers his wife in bed with another woman, and then kills this intruder (Controversiae 1.2.23). The women themselves are not indicted; the question is whether or not the husband had the right to commit a murder. The text is full of gaps and its interpretation is not straightforward,26 but it shows us that there were no Roman laws pertaining to adultery between women, seeing that the orators are unable to appeal to a causa legitima to defend the cheated-on husband.

This absence of juridical rules appears a century later in Petronius’s Satyricon: during Trimalchio’s banquet, one of the wealthy guests, Habinnas, publicly humiliates Fortunata, Trimalchio’s wife, when she and Habinnas’s wife Scintilla tightly embrace each other. In the context of this banquet parody, the women’s embrace allows Petronius to highlight the poor reading of the situation by a freed slave lacking in social understanding. The theme of the impossibility of adultery sans male appears soon after in Martial (1.90). In the context of this very brief scene, Petronius uses no specific term to characterize the two women, but does use implicit references to Plato’s Symposium, a work that mentions eros between women (cited in the section “Love and philosophy: The extent of the possible”).

Although the Controversiae are written in Latin, Seneca the Rhetorician cites in Greek the term tribades, in the plural, to designate the two women together. It is the first extant occurrence of the word tribas, constructed from the root of the Greek verb tribein (“to rub”). This term is attested in Latin in the first half of the 1st century ce, in the work of Phaedrus (Fables, 4.16), but as a transliterated Greek word, not regularized to Latin forms. In a fable playfully attributed to Aesop, the poet recounts the manner in which Prometheus sculpted humans. The tribades and the molles mares (literally, “soft or weak men”), result from an error in the application of the sexes to the bodies, which explains their deviant pleasure (pravo gaudio). The tone that emerges from Roman discourses between the 1st century bce and the 1st century ce becomes increasingly deprecatory.

The Condemnatory Discourse of Satire: Far from Eroticism

The satirical epigrammist Martial, at the end of the 1st century ce, alludes to sexual practices between women through two very different characters. His poems are extremely crude, but no more so than his poems that mock, in abundant scabrous detail, fellators, performers of cunnilingus, men who enjoy being penetrated, and all of the hypocrites of the era. In epigram 7.67, Philaenis, a character who comprises multiple aspects of the anti-erotic woman, accomplishes various athletic exercises after having sodomized young boys, then practices cunnilingus in an unrestrained manner on young girls. Philaenis, elsewhere referred to as the “tribas of tribades” (7.70.1), performs in excess acts that she believes to be virile. It is above all her hypersexuality and bad judgement that Martial ridicules: respectable Roman masculinity resides in measured comportment and in the appropriate judgement of what behaviour is best suited to the circumstances, and not in a specific sexual practice—especially not in cunnilingus. Martial’s other character, Bassa (1.90), seems at first to be the opposite of Philaenis: she, the most chaste of wives, maintains her decency by only visiting with women. In reality, however, she is their fututor and commits the astounding act of adultery without the involvement of a man. The comic effect of this epigram rests in the paradox of its final satirical twist, and the surprise generated by this character whose physical appearance in no way hints at her sexual practices. Bassa is not athletic, nor is she masculine; it is her behaviour and hypocrisy that are highlighted by Martial. Around the same time, the narrator of Juvenal’s sixth satire recounts, as a means of denouncing the turpitude and decadence of his time, the dubious behaviour of two drunk women, Maura and Tullia, who “take turns sitting astride one another in the moonlight” (Satires, 6.306–313). Far from occupying a category unto themselves or incarnating the contemporary image of the virile homosexual or butch lesbian, Martial’s and Juvenal’s characters make up part of the vast gallery of portraits produced by the two poets as they ridicule all—and they are many—of those who have not grasped the codes of Roman decency.

The true commonality shared by these evocations, from that of the fabulist Phaedrus to that of Juvenal, is their derogatory tone: the women are drunk or immoderate, and they transgress, by their general attitude, the moral norms of good behaviour. In these contexts, such sexual relationships are objects of blame, and those who surrender to them, far from arousing the desire of the work’s intended audience, offer a degraded image of themselves. Indeed, with the exception of a heavily damaged fresco from Pompeii’s suburban baths,27 and some images on oil lamps, representations of sexual relationships between women are nearly nonexistent in the context of the erotic and “pornographic” images of wall paintings and banquet ceramic ware.

Scientific and Classificatory Discourses: Practices rather than Identities

The Latin term tribas is employed three times by Martial to characterize the same person. A word constructed from a Greek root, it first occurs in Latin contexts (Seneca the Elder, Phaedrus, Martial) and it is only later, in the 2nd century ce, that it appears in a Greek text: the astrological treatises of Ptolemy and of Vettius Valens mention the birth of masculine tribades and effeminate kinaidoi, according to a particular stellar configuration. These same subjects recur in the 3rd and 4th centuries (Manetho, Firmicus Maternus, and Hermes Trismegistus, who use the Latin term fricatrix). These authors are not concerned, however, with explaining the origin of “homosexuality”: the cases of men and women afflicted with deviant genders are never approached jointly, their deviations are also manifested in their social behaviour, and the same expectation is not applied to both partners in the relationship, whom our modern society would consider “homosexuals.” Moreover, the terms tribas, frictrix (Tertullian), and fricatrix have meanings that fluctuate according to context.

This fluctuation can also be observed in other scientific texts, in the absence of the term tribas. Artemidorus, in his Oneirocritica, posits the possibility of dreams in which a woman fantasizes that she penetrates another woman or is penetrated by her (1.80): these dreams are placed in the category of relationships that are contrary to nature (para phusin), which include sexual relationships with a cadaver, a god, or an animal, for the very reason of their social illegibility. They can be a good omen for the dreamer if the two women know each other. In a physiognomic treatise from the 4th century ce (Anonymous, Treatise on Physiognomy, 85), women who are attracted to other women are “of the feminine type.” Finally, the first medical text to mention sexual relationships between women is particularly late, dating from the 5th century ce (Caelius Aurelianus, On Chronic Diseases, 4.9.132–133). The abnormal behaviour is analysed as a mental dysfunction. For many centuries and up until this date, doctors did not view women’s sexual practice as pertaining to a typology of sexual practices, but rather as a reproductive capacity or, potentially, in terms of a crippling hypersexuality. Not a single known medical text from the Classical period mentions abnormality in the homosexual practices of women, and even less so a physical deformation of the clitoris that could supposedly be linked to sexual orientation.

The Magic of Love in Hellenistic Egypt

In a very different context, magical charms found in the sands of Egypt (on lead tablets or papyrus) portray the ravages of love and attest to the diverse means by which one managed to live out one’s desire. The practice of erotic magic involves a client and a magician who is asked, for payment, to write a magical charm to bewitch the person of one’s choosing. The papyrus or the tablet was generally thrown into the tomb of the invoked deceased while the magician stuck pins into a small statue or a doll according to the body parts named. A papyrus from the 2nd century ce, found at Hawara (PGM XXXII), contains a charm intended to unite two women, Sarapias and Herais. On a lead tablet found at Hermopolis (PSI I, 28, 12–19) and dating from the 3rd or 4th century ce, there is a long inscription: the divinities are invoked so that Gorgonia will burn with love and desire for Sophia, and will surrender herself to her. Within the corpus of erotic magic, whether charms are meant to unite two women, two men, or a man and a woman, the love that consumes and brings suffering is expressed in the same terms.

Lucian, the Play of Clichés, and the Shadow of Plato

One finds these sorts of varied and contradictory images, deliberately and skillfully collected, in a work of vastly different tone: the Dialogues of the Courtesans, composed by the master of allusion, erudition, and humour, Lucian of Samosata (2nd century ce). He presents us with a courtesan, Leaina, who is telling her colleague Klonarion the story of the evening that she spent with the rich Megilla of Lesbos and Demonassa of Corinth (Dialogue 5). Initially there as a citharist, she becomes the guest of this couple of “married” women,28 who invite her to spend the night. This gives rise, she tells, to caresses and deep kisses between the three women, then, in the course of a full embrace, a dialogue on the sexual identity of Megilla. The latter shows Leaina her shaved head, which she hides under a wig. She asks to be called Megillos, but she explains that she is neither in drag like Achilles, nor a hermaphrodite, nor the product of a sexual metamorphosis like Tiresias. There follows an erotic relationship in which Megilla takes extreme pleasure. Leaina refuses to respond to Klonarion, who insistently demands details, and the dialogue ends with this aporia. Contemporary commentaries on this dialogue often focus on the character of Megilla, who is seen as a virile lesbian with an artificial phallus or as a veritable butch; she has also been seen as a tribas (even though the word does not appear), especially given the context of prostitution. However, none of this is clear from the dialogue itself: Megilla and Demonassa are not prostitutes; they organize a banquet as rich citizens of Athens. In the fiction of the dialogue, Demonassa as well as Megilla is attracted to Leaina. In Greek and Roman representations generally, moreover, prostitution is in no way a privileged context for a lesbian eroticism aimed at a male audience. Finally, their use of a sex toy remains no more than hypothetical.

In actuality, implicit and explicit references to the works of Plato (e.g. the re-employment of the term hetairistria), together with the complicated structure of the dialogue, reveal a complex mise en abîme set up by the author: Leaina, like Lucian, invents a dialogue to please her audience, and introduces, one after the other, topoi, knowing winks, and logical impossibilities. Far from providing access to the realities and representations of “homosexual” women of the imperial public, Lucian constructs a paradoxical symposion: a learned formulation of the kind of thing the orator-sophist must do in order to please and retain his audience. In this fabrication the characters are neither masculine nor feminine; they are simply “different” (allokotos, 5.67), just as Lucian invents a new genre of his own.

This sort of invention in the service of sophistic creation can be found in another of Lucian’s dialogues. The Erotes stages, once again through an inset dialogue, an oratorical competition intended to show which form of erotic desire, eros for boys or for women, is superior. Here, there is no essential difference between the preference for boys or for women, of a kind that would profoundly change the identity of the individual: it is merely a question of personal taste, and Theomnestus, who solicits Lycinus’s opinion on the question, bluntly states that he cannot make a definitive choice. This text clearly shows the nonexistence of the categories of homosexuality and heterosexuality in the ancient world.29 It should be noted, however, that, in setting up this comparison of the merits of women and of boys, everything is seen from the perspective of the free man, and sexual love between women never appears as a possible preference that might be defended, whether by the champion of love for women, or the champion of men’s love for boys. When female homoeroticism is evoked, it is at a particular moment in the orators’ sparring. The defender of love for women paints a terrifying picture of a world that accepts relationships between men, and in which women would likewise be authorized to make love to one another: in such a world, women would join together as do men, and lust of the kind associated with tribades would be displayed openly. Here we find gathered together multiple topoi regarding sexual practices: clichés of excess and gender distortion, an explicit reference to a dildo used between women, and mention of a certain Philaenis, known as the author of an erotic handbook (P. Oxy. 2891),who also shares a name with Martial’s character.30 The argument is the following: if relationships between men are to be recognized, Charicles essentially says, then it will likewise be necessary to recognize relationships between women. This statement rests on the implicit idea that sexual relationships between men and sexual relationships between women would belong to a common group, that of relationships between individuals of the same sex, or “homosexuality”. This is the greatest threat that can apparently be wielded in the argument against sexual love for boys. Even so, in the context of this verbal contest, the notion of such a category does not appear plausible, and victory is awarded to Charicles’s adversary, Callicratidas. In this dialogue, in which humorous references to Plato are evident in the parody of male homoerotic relationships, the mention of female homoeroticism is used by Lucian’s character simply as a means of demonstrating which of the other two types of love is better: female homoeroticism is never included in the terms of the comparison31 (sunkrisis) and, contrary to Aristophanes’s depiction in Plato’s Symposium, is positioned outside the erotic domain, as something by implication impossible and unthinkable.

Conclusion: Antique Eroticism and the Gender System

Interrogating the question of female homosexuality allows us to apprehend the configuration of a gender system particular to ancient societies. In Greece as in Rome, the binary system of gender did not have the same relation to human sexual bimorphism as it does in the contemporary West. Masculinity, as a set of valorized qualities, was considered advantageous in either men or women. Femininity, on the other hand, was for the most part a disastrous quality in a man, and even in a woman was a characteristic that expressed an essential weakness, or lack of positive qualities, rather than constituting a positive image of what a woman should be. The figures of the kinaidos in Greece or the mollis in Rome permit us to sketch a field of social values and to define, by way of contrast, the proper behaviour of the politês or the vir Romanus, but there is no equivalent construction of a more or less consistent figure of the masculine woman which could be used to define, through opposition, the ideal woman. On the contrary, masculinity is a moral value that can serve in several contexts to characterize a woman positively. These polarities, established in an “infra-masculine” manner,32 come to normalize the whole social field (including e.g. servile populations, free women) and posit interpretive frameworks that can be difficult to perceive from the point of view of one accustomed to a binary demarcation of bodies and behaviours. In Plato and, much later, in the anonymous Latin Treatise on Physiognomy, women who are attracted to other women are of the feminine type, and while there exist contexts in which the tribas seems to take on masculine characteristics, discursive analysis shows that this figure is not employed to delineate, by contrast, a positive feminine gender (for a woman) but rather to reveal masculine social codes (e.g. Martial, 5.67).

Despite the inapplicability, in general, of the 19th century term “homosexuality” to the ancient world, there do exist a few rare moments when two partners in a sexual relationship are placed on the same level as each other and subjected to the same normative judgement; there also exist moments in which, situated outside the erotic domain, sexual relationships between women are negatively constituted, according to the unique criteria of the sexual identity of the two partners, in a way resembling the contemporary category. Might not female homosexuality be, in this regard, the “The First Homosexuality?” inquired David M. Halperin in an intentionally provocative manner during a debate over the work of Bernadette Brooten.33

Another very different moment in the prehistory of female homosexuality can be glimpsed in the Archaic period, when Sappho’s talent succeeds in creating a non-gendered model for the eros between women that she celebrates in her poems, a model that spans the centuries, appearing again in the masculine symposia of Hellenistic Greece, and becoming a source of inspiration for the Latin poets. Here the coherence of this erotic desire resides in its effects on the body and the soul: eros is a force that moves and transforms. The “truth of sex,” a product of internal urges and social norms that differentiate men and women based on the criteria of “sexual orientation,” is still a long way off.

Discussion of the Literature

The current understanding of what we are calling “female homosexuality” in Greek and Roman antiquity depends upon particularly recent scientific, social, and political history. Four moments stand out in it.

For a long time and until around the 1960s, sexuality in general and in particular the homosexuality of the Greeks and Romans were considered inappropriate subjects for serious research.34 With rare exceptions,35 female homoeroticism, when approached at all, appeared only in discussions of “private life,” where it is mentioned with censure and moral condemnation, or in studies concerning rites of passage, in which such relationships were generally treated as a type of behaviour necessitating explanation or as a form of temporary inversion.36 As a counterpoint to these studies, there developed in non-academic milieus approaches that idealized lesbian or “Greek love,” particularly through the figure of Sappho.37

At the end of the 1970s and until the end of the 1990s, propelled by struggles against discrimination, the progress of women’s studies at universities, the diffusion of Michel Foucault’s works,38 and the theoretical contribution of gender studies, the question of women, on the one hand, and of sexuality and homosexuality, on the other, entered to some degree into the accepted domain of classical studies. This acceptance allowed for new perspectives on ancient societies and for better comprehension of social, familial, and political relationships in the Greek and Roman worlds. However, apart from works on Archaic melic poetry (Alcman, Sappho),39 female homosexuality has remained little studied and, with a few exceptions,40 has remained marginal to relevant works on the history of women, on the one hand, and on homosexuality (often understood as masculine) and eroticism, on the other. Thus, the question of female homosexuality has been only a minor aspect of the great and lively debates of the “sexuality wars” that animated classical studies at the end of the 20th century, concerning the historicity of gay identity, the definition of paederasty, and the relative importance to be accorded to the criteria of physical penetration (construed in terms of active and passive) in the ancient social construction of sexuality.41

Only at the end of the 1990s and the beginning of the 21st century has female homosexuality become a specific field of enquiry with its own logic and periodization, without the projection of present-day preconceptions regarding the male/female binary or the analogy of female with male homosexuality. Two works addressing the general theme are dedicated to this topic, the first being a study primarily centred on late Christian antiquity (Brooten, 1996)42 and the other on non-Christian Greek and Roman antiquity (Boehringer, 2007)43. Other, more specific studies have likewise appeared, mainly in relation to the texts of Ovid and Lucian, as well as to iconography.44 Only during this most recent period has female homosexuality has been considered something other than a silent space or a subaltern side note to masculine homosexuality.

A new stage of this research history is now beginning, with the integration of works on female homosexuality into scholarship and with the broadening of approaches to sexuality and eroticism more generally. These approaches, which combine historical methods with those of cultural anthropology, avoid to an ever greater degree the heuristic terms “homosexuality” and “heterosexuality” and attempt to materialize, without blind spots and censure, categories that are specific to Greek and Roman societies.45

Primary Texts

Alcman, Partheneia, fr. 26, 61–72, 80–81 (ed. Calame).

Artemidorus, Interpretation of Dreams, 1.80.

Juvenal, Satires, 6.306–313.

Lucian, Dialogues of the Courtesans, 5; Erotes, 28.

Martial, Epigrams, 1 90, 7.67, 7.70.

Ovid, Heroides, 15.15–20; Met., 2.409–440; Met., 9.743 sq.

Papyri della Societa Italiana, I 28, 12–19.

Papyri Graecae Magicae, XXXII.

Phaedrus, Fables, IV, 16.

Plato, Symposion, 191d–e; Laws, 836a–b, 636b–d.

Sappho, in particular fr. 1; fr. 31.


Major Books and Articles
  • Boehringer, Sandra. L’Homosexualité féminine dans l’Antiquité grecque et romaine. Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 2007.
  • Boehringer, Sandra. “What is named by the name ‘Philaenis’? Gender, function and authority of an antonomastic figure.” In Sex in Antiquity: Exploring Gender and Sexuality in the Ancient World. Edited by Mark Masterson, Nancy Sorkin Rabinowitz, and James E. Robson, 374–393. London and New York: Routledge, 2014.
  • Brooten, Bernadette J. Love between Women: Early Christian Responses to Female Homoeroticism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.
  • Gilhuly, Kate. “Lesbians Are Not from Lesbos.” In Ancient Sexuality: New Essays. Edited by Ruby Blondell and Kirk Ormand, 146–176. Columbus: Ohio State University Press,2015.
  • Hallett, Judith P. “Female Homoeroticism and the Denial of Roman Reality in Latin Literature.” Yale Journal of Criticism 3.1 (1989): 209–227.
  • Halperin, David M. “The First Homosexuality?” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 4.4 (1998): 559–578. Revised version in The Sleep of Reason: Erotic Experience and Sexual Ethics in Ancient Greece and Rome. Edited by Martha Craven Nussbaum and Juha Sihvola, 229–268. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002.
  • Kroll, Wilhelm. “Lesbische Liebe.” In Realencyclopädie der classischen Altertumswissenschaft 12.2 (1925): 2100–2102.
  • Parker, Holt. “Sappho Schoolmistress.” Transactions of the American Philological Association 123 (1993): 309–351.
  • Parker, Holt N. “The Teratogenic Grid.” In Roman Sexualities. Edited by Judith P. Hallett and Marilyn P. Skinner, 47–65. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997.
  • Rabinowitz, Nancy Sorkin. “Excavating Women’s Homoeroticism in Ancient Greece: The Evidence from Attic Vase Painting.” In Among Women: From the Homosocial to the Homoerotic in the Ancient World. Edited by Nancy Sorkin Rabinowitz and Lisa Auanger, 106–166. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002.
  • Snyder, Jane McIntosh. Lesbian Desire in the Lyrics of Sappho. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997.
Sourcebooks, Syntheses, and Collections
  • Blondell, Ruby, and Kirk Ormand, eds. Ancient Sexuality: New Essays. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2015.
  • Boehringer, Sandra, and Louis-Georges Tin. Homosexualité: Aimer en Grèce et à Rome. Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 2010.
  • Calame, Claude. The Poetics of Eros in Ancient Greece. Translated by Janet Lloyd. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999.
  • Cantarella, Eva. Bisexuality in the Ancient World. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1992.
  • Dover, K. J. Greek Homosexuality. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1978.
  • Hubbard, Thomas K., ed. Homosexuality in Greece and Rome: A Sourcebook of Basic Documents. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.
  • Hubbard, Thomas K., ed. A Companion to Greek and Roman Sexualities. Malden, MA: Wiley Blackwell, 2014.
  • Rabinowitz, Nancy Sorkin, and Lisa Auanger, eds. Among Women: From the Homosocial to the Homoerotic in the Ancient World. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002.
  • Sergent, Bernard. Homosexualité et initiation chez les peuples indo-européens. Paris: Payot, 1996.
  • Skinner Marilyn B., ed. Sexuality in Greek and Roman Culture. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2014.
  • Williams, Craig A. Roman Homosexuality: Ideologies of Masculinity in Classical Antiquity. 2d ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.
  • Winkler, John J. The Constraints of Desire: The Anthropology of Sex and Gender in Ancient Greece. New York and London: Routledge, 1990.


  • 1. Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, vol. 1, The Will of Knowledge, translated by R. Hurley (New York: Viking, 1978); vol. 2, The Use of Pleasure translated by R. Hurley (New York: Viking, 1985); vol. 3, The Care of the Self translated by R. Hurley (New York: Viking, 1986); Arnold I. Davidson, The Emergence of Sexuality: Historical Epistemology and the Formation of Concepts (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001).

  • 2. “Ce lien qu’on oblige les gens à nouer avec leur identité sous la forme de la subjectivité,” Michel Foucault, “Sexualité et pouvoir” [1978], in Dits et écrits, vol. 3 (Paris: Gallimard, 1994), 552–570, 570.

  • 3. David M. Halperin, John. J. Winkler, and Froma I. Zeitlin, eds., Before Sexuality: The Construction of Erotic Experience in the Ancient World (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990).

  • 4. David M. Halperin, One Hundred Years of Homosexuality and Other Essays on Greek Love (New York and London: Routledge, 1990). For the debates on this question, see section “Discussion of the Literature.”

  • 5. Claude Calame, Alcman: Introduction, texte critique, témoignages, traduction et commentaire (Rome: Edizioni dell’Ateneo, 1983).

  • 6. Claude Calame, Choruses of Young Women in Ancient Greece: Their Morphology, Religious Role and Social Functions (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1997).

  • 7. Jane M. Snyder, Lesbian Desire in the Lyrics of Sappho (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997).

  • 8. Claude Calame, The Poetics of Eros in Ancient Greece (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999).

  • 9. André Lardinois, “Who Sang Sappho’s Songs?” in Reading Sappho: Contemporary Approaches, edited by Ellen Greene (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), 150–172; Dimitrios Yatromanolakis., Sappho in the Making: The Early Reception (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007).

  • 10. Polychromatic plate from Thera, c. 620 BCE, Thera, Archaeological Museum.

  • 11. Bernard Sergent, Homosexualité et initiation chez les peuples indo-européens (Paris: Payot, 1996).

  • 12. André Lardinois, “Lesbian Sappho and Sappho of Lesbos,” in From Sappho to De Sade: Moments in the History of Sexuality, edited by J. N. Bremmer (London and New York: Routledge, 1989), 15–35.

  • 13. Kate Gilhuly, “Lesbians Are Not from Lesbos,” in Ancient Sexuality: New Essays, edited by Ruby Blondell & Kirk Ormand (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2015), 146–176.

  • 14. Sandra Boehringer, L’Homosexualité féminine dans l’Antiquité grecque et romaine (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 2007), 61–63, 211–215.

  • 15. Sandra Boehringer, “Comment classer les comportements érotiques? Platon, le sexe et érôs dans le Banquet et les Lois,” Études Platoniciennes 4 (2007): 45–67.

  • 16. Alan Cameron, “Asclepiades’s Girlfriends,” in Reflections of Women in Antiquity, edited by Helene P. Foley (New York: Gordon & Breach, 1981), 275–302, expanded in Alan Cameron, Callimachus and his Critics (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995), 494–519; Kenneth J. Dover, “Two Women of Samos,” in The Sleep of Reason: Erotic Experience and Sexual Ethics in Ancient Greece and Rome, edited by Martha C. Nussbaum and Juha Sihvola (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002), 222–228; Boehringer, L’Homosexualité féminine, 175–197.

  • 17. Of particular note is an Apulian pelike, c. 350 BCE, Taranto, Museo Archeologico Nazionale, 4803. Cf. L. H. Petersen, “Divided Consciousness and Female Companionship: Reconstructing Female Subjectivity on Greek Vases,” Arethusa 30 (1997): 35–74; Nancy Sorkin Rabinowitz, “Excavating Women’s Homoeroticism in Ancient Greece: The Evidence from Attic Vase Painting,” in Among Women: From the Homosocial to the Homoerotic in the Ancient World, edited by Nancy Sorkin Rabinowitz and Lisa Auanger (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002), 106–166.

  • 18. Martin F. Kilmer, Greek Erotica on Attic Red-figures Vases (London: Duckworth, 1993), 29–30, 98.

  • 19. Boehringer, L’Homosexualité féminine, 144–150.

  • 20. Attic kylix painted by Apollodorus, late 6th or early 5th century BCE, Tarquinia, Musée Archéologique (Beazley, Para. 333, 9bis).

  • 21. Simpulum from Cullera, c. 250–300 CE, Paris, Musée du Petit Palais, Dutuit Collection.

  • 22. Diane T. Pintabone, “Ovid’s Iphis and Ianthe: When Girls Won’t Be Girls,” in Among Women: From the Homosocial to the Homoerotic in the Ancient World, edited by Nancy Sorkin Rabinowitz and Lisa Auanger (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002), 256–287; Kirk Ormand, “Impossible Lesbians in Ovid’s Metamorphoses,” in Gendered Dynamics in Latin Love Poetry, edited by Ronnie Ancona and Ellen Greene (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005), 79–110; Boehringer, L’Homosexualité féminine, 232–260.

  • 23. Kristina Milnor, Graffiti and the Literary Landscape in Roman Pompeii (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 191–232.

  • 24. Judith P. Hallett, “Female Homoeroticism and the Denial of Roman Reality in Latin Literature,” Yale Journal of Criticism 3.1 (1989): 209–227.

  • 25. Florence Dupont and Thierry Éloi, L’érotisme masculin dans la Rome antique (Paris: Belin, 2001), 33–43.

  • 26. Danilo Dalla, “Ubi Venus mutatur”: Omosessualità e diritto nel mondo romano (Milan: A. Giuffre, 1978); Eva Cantarella, Secondo natura (Rome: Riuniti, 1988), develops different readings.

  • 27. Eva Cantarella, Pompei: I volti dell’amore (Rome: Mondadori, 1998), 168; John R. Clarke, Clarke, Looking at Lovemaking: Constructions of Sexuality in Roman Art, 100 BC–AD 250 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 227, pl. 13.

  • 28. On the problematic status of this “marriage” see Alan Cameron, “Love (and marriage) between women,” Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies 39 (1998): 137–156; Sandra Boehringer, “Sex, Lies, and (Video)trap: The Illusion of Sexual Identity in Lucian’s Dialogues of the Courtesans 5,” in Ancient Sexuality: New Essays, edited by Ruby Blondell and Kirk Ormand (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2015), 254–284.

  • 29. Michel Foucault, Le Souci de soi (Paris: Gallimard, 1984), 243–261; David Halperin, “Historicizing the Subject of Desire: Sexual Preferences and Erotic Identities in the Pseudo-Lucianic Erotes,” in Discourses of Sexuality: From Aristotles to AIDS, edited by D. C. Stanton (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1992), 236–261, republished in Foucault and the Writing of History, edited by J. Goldstein (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), 79–34, 255–261.

  • 30. Sandra Boehringer, “What Is Named by the Name ‘Philaenis’? Gender, Function and Authority of an Antonomastic Figure,” in Sex in Antiquity: Exploring Gender and Sexuality in the Ancient World, edited by Mark Masterson et al. (New York and London: Routledge, 2014), 374–393.

  • 31. Sandra Boehringer, “Comparer l’incomparable: La sunkrisis érotique et les catégories sexuelles dans le monde gréco-romain,”in Le choix de l’homosexualité: Recherches inédites sur la question gay et lesbienne, edited by Bruno Perreau (Paris: Epel, 2007), 39–56.

  • 32. John J. Winkler, The Constraints of Desire: The Anthropology of Sex and Gender in Ancient Greece (New York and London: Routledge, 1990), 207 ff.

  • 33. David M. Halperin, “The First Homosexuality?,” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 4.4 (1998): 559–578, revised in The Sleep of Reason: Erotic Experience and Sexual Ethics in Ancient Greece and Rome, edited by Martha C. Nussbaum and Juha Sihvola (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002), 229–268; Bernadette J. Brooten, Love between Women: Early Christian Responses to Female Homoeroticism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996).

  • 34. Cf. W. Kroll, “Lesbische Liebe,” in Pauly-Wissowa, Realencyclopädie des klassischen Altertumswissenschaft, 13:2100–2102, 1924. For a historiographic approach, see David M. Halperin, How To Do the History of Homosexuality (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002).

  • 35. The pioneering work of Peter Brandt, Sittengeschichte Griechenlands, published in 1928 under the pseudonym Hans Licht (translated into English in 1932 as Sexual Life in Ancient Greece), contains a short chapter explicity titled “Die lesbische Liebe.”

  • 36. For a history of the theme of homosexuality in the history of rites of passage and cultural comparisons, see David M. Halperin, One Hundred Years of Homosexuality and Other Essays on Greek Love (New York and London: Routledge, 1990), particularly the interview with Harald Patzer; and Sandra Boehringer, “Existe-t-il une ‘homosexualité initiatique’ ? Pour une anthropologie de la sexualité antique,” in Life, Coming of Age and Death in Antiquity: Individual Rites of Passage in the Ancient Near East, edited by A. Mouton and J. Patrier (PIHANS 124; Leiden: Nederlands Institute for the Near East, 2014), 481–506.

  • 37. See Renée Vivien’s translations of Sappho (1903) or Pierre Louÿs’s Chansons de Bilitis (1894). Likewise see Édith Mora, Sappho: Histoire du poète et traduction intégrale de l’œuvre (Paris: Flammarion, 1966). On Sappho’s posterity as a figure incarnating the homosexual, either positively or negatively, see Joan Dejean, Fictions of Sapho, 1546–1937 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989).

  • 38. Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, translated by R. Hurley (3 vols.; New York: Viking, 1978–1986).

  • 39. See Calame, Choruses of Young Women, on the work of Alcman. For the content and the creative context of Sappho’s poems, cf. Mora, Sappho. Histoire du poète; Judith P. Hallett, “Sappho and her Social Context: Sense and Sensuality,” Signs 3 (1979): 447–464; Ellen Greene, ed., Reading Sappho: Contemporary Approaches (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996); André Lardinois, “Who Sang Sappho’s Songs?” in Reading Sappho: Contemporary Approaches, edited by Ellen Greene (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), 150–172; Jane M. Snyder, Lesbian Desire in the Lyrics of Sappho (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997).

  • 40. Of particular note on Rome is Judith P. Hallett, “Female Homoeroticism and the Denial of Roman Reality in Latin Literature,” Yale Journal of Criticism 3.1 (1989): 209–227. In general works, the theme is briefly touched upon in K. J. Dover, Greek Homosexuality (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1978), 171 ff.; Eva Cantarella, Bisexuality in the Ancient World (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1992); Sergent, Homosexualité et initiation; Winkler, Constraints of Desire; Craig A. Williams, Roman Homosexuality: Ideologies of Masculinity in Classical Antiquity (2d ed.; New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).

  • 41. These debates stem in particular from the works of Michel Foucault and David Halperin, and have generated arguments from numerous researchers with different positions; see in particular Amy Richlin, “Not before Homosexuality: The Materiality of the Cinaedus and the Roman Law against Love between Men,” Journal of the History of Sexuality 3 (1992/1993): 523–573; James Davidson, “Dover, Foucault and Greek Homosexuality: Penetration and the truth of sex,” Past & Present 170.1 (2001): 3–51. For a synthesis of the arguments, cf. Kirk Ormand, “Foucault’s History of Sexuality and the Discipline of Classics,” in A Companion to Greek and Roman Sexualities, edited by Thomas K. Hubbard (Malden, MA: Wiley Blackwell, 2014), 54–68. On the specific question of female homosexuality, see the exchange between D. M. Halperin, “Response: Halperin on Brennan on Brooten,” Bryn Mawr Classical Review 97 (1997):12.3, and Bernadette J. Brooten, “Lesbian Historiography before the Name? Response,” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 4.4 (1997): 606–630.

  • 42. Brooten, Love between Women.

  • 43. Boehringer, L’Homosexualité féminine.

  • 44. On the subject of Ovid’s Metamorphoses see Pamela Gordon, “The Lovers’ Voice in Heroides 15: Or, Why Is Sappho a Man?” in Roman Sexualities, edited by J. P. Hallett and M. B. Skinner (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997), 274–291; Diane T. Pintabone, “Ovid’s Iphis and Ianthe: When Girls Won’t Be Girls,” in Among Women: From the Homosocial to the Homoerotic in the Ancient World, edited by Nancy Sorkin Rabinowitz and Lisa Auanger (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002), 256–287; Ormand, “Impossible Lesbians”; J. Walker, “Before the Name: Ovid’s Deformulated Lesbianism,” Comparative Literature 58.3 (2006): 205–222; D. Kamen, “Naturalized Desires and the Metamorphosis of Iphis,” Helios 39 (2012): 21–36. On Lucian’s Dialogue of the Courtesans see S. P. Haley, “Lucian’s ‘Leaena and Clonarium’: Voyeurism or a Challenge to Assumptions?” in Among Women: From the Homosocial to the Homoerotic in the Ancient World, edited by Nancy Sorkin Rabinowitz and Lisa Auanger (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002), 286–303; Kate Gilhuly, “The Phallic Lesbian: Philosophy, Comedy, and Social Inversion in Lucian’s Dialogues of the Courtesans,” in Prostitutes and Courtesans in the Ancient World, edited by Christopher Faraone and Laura K. McClure (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2006), 274–291. On the question of images see Petersen, “Divided Consciousness”; Rabinowitz, “Excavating Women’s Homoeroticism”; Lisa Auanger, “Glimpses through a Window: An Approach to Roman Female Homoeroticism through Art Historical and Literary Evidence,” in Among Women: From the Homosocial to the Homoerotic in the Ancient World, edited by Mamcy Sorkin Rabinowitz and Lisa Auanger (Austin: University of Texas Press 2002), 211–255.

  • 45. Thomas K. Hubbard, ed., A Companion to Greek and Roman Sexualities (Malden, MA: Wiley Blackwell, 2014); Mark Masterson, Nancy Rabinowitz and J. E. Robson, eds., Sex in Antiquity: Exploring Gender and Sexuality in the Ancient World (New York and London: Routledge, 2014); Ruby Blondell and Kirk Ormand K., eds., Ancient Sexuality: New Essays (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2015).